Theatre shows are subject to change, sometimes those changes are necessary to develop and bring new life to a work. Changes can be imposed upon a work; cast changes; venue changes; the director or the entire company changes. The thing you saw in its first incarnation will almost certainly not be the same when you see it years later. So it was with Delicate Flowers at East Riding Theatre, a one-woman show about Hull’s pioneering boxing champion Barbara Buttrick, written and directed by Mark Rees of Single Story Theatre.
I first saw Delicate Flowers at Heads Up Festival – under the umbrella of the Women of the World Festival programmed for Hull 2017 – with Kat Martin in the role of Karen. Delicate Flowers at WoW I later saw the work in Cottingham – incidentally Barbara’s home – when Single Story did a scaled down version for the Butterflies dementia group inside the local church: Delicate Flowers for Butterflies On hearing Delicate Flowers was playing at ERT and having an opportunity to go attached to a university group outing, I found myself once again seeing the same show… only it wasn’t the same show.
Originally the piece worked because of the way Barbara’s story was revealed as Karen the modern day troubled teen, finds her own salvation through boxing. By learning about Barbara’s remarkable life both in and outside the ring, and her fight for recognition and respect, she begins to embody those same qualities and retaining Barbara’s fighting spirit within her.
The first incarnation of Delicate Flowers had choreographic flair, an energy and spark, that this latest version lacked. Was it that I had become so attached to the former through familiarity that I wouldn’t accept a remake? I’d seen the work in rehearsal stage, I’d even posed for a knockout picture with the original ‘Karen’.
Maybe it is all down to viewing position. At Ferens Live Art Space we had looked down upon the stage set, we saw right into the ring, right into Barbara and Karen’s lives. At ERT we had to make do with the flat horizontal sight line which immediately changed the way you related to the performance. I am aware that Delicate Flowers was also staged inside St. Paul’s Boxing Club, the actual boxing gym where the fictional Karen is said to have trained, so the sight lines would have been different again.
With all that history potentially colouring my opinion, I felt that Amber Devine’s portrayal of Karen just didn’t have the same impact, the same presence. I also felt the fight sequences lacked clarity, the repetition of left right combinations – around the four points of the compass – lacked imagination and any real purpose.
However my main issue with the new version (and it is new, it feels different, the energy is different) is that where once the focus was on Barbara, and Karen the device to tell that story, by extending and developing Karen’s backstory there are now two stories each vying for your attention. I felt that the Barbara story was in danger of becoming lost in this new story that has ‘essay questions’ and ‘For Schools’ written all over it. One scene stands out in this regard, where the now older and wiser Karen meets a young girl demanding cigarettes outside a local shop. In that moment Karen sees herself as she was years before, and proceeds to tell this girl off the estate, that she should go back to college. The ‘cigarette girl’ is pregnant at a young age, just as she had been and it is all too neat: all wrapped up and perfectly parcelled for a schools audience.
After the very obvious shoe-horning in of the Malala Yousafzai narrative to further drive that ‘education equals freedom’ point home, I was half expecting Karen to start quoting Emily Dickinson and work in a suffrage touchstone for good measure. The trouble with all these current references is that they leave the audience with nowhere to go. For some that approach may serve a purpose, creating multiple entry points for multiple audience types, but in doing so you risk diminishing and losing sight of the original, which stood up well and packed a considerable punch.